Health officials announced Thursday the Forrest County man with a presumptive case of the COVID-19 coronavirus traveled by airplane from south Florida to the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport earlier this week.
During a press conference at Forrest General Hospital, Dr. Rambod Rouhbakhsh, who serves as assistant director of the hospital’s Family Medicine Residency Program, and Forrest Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Steve Farrell said the 49-year-old man is self-quarantined at his home and doing well.
“Without revealing private health information, (he’s doing) good,” Rouhbakhsh said. “The patient is doing well, at home, and we are checking in with him several times a day.”
Because of legal reasons, officials cannot release the identity – or occupation – of the patient.
“Every patient deserves privacy, no matter who they are,” Rouhbakhsh said. “So any identifying information is, frankly, illegal. So we can’t identify anything or reveal that.”
On Wednesday, hospital officials received confirmation from the Mississippi State Department of Health that a Forrest County resident had tested positive for the coronavirus. The man had returned to Hattiesburg Monday after his trip to Florida, and on Tuesday began experiencing fever, coughing and muscle aches.
The patient visited one of the hospital’s clinics, where nasal and oral swabs were obtained and submitted to the state lab for testing. The patient called ahead before arriving at the clinic, and was gloved and masked prior to entry to prevent any possible transmission to workers or other patients.
He was then sent home for self-quarantine.
“I want to underline how exactly perfect this patient handled this interaction,” Rouhbakhsh said. “Had it not been called in ahead of time, had we not been prepared with masks and gloves, it would have been a much greater (risk of) exposure.”
The patient traveled to Florida with a companion, who visited another clinic to have nasal and oral swabs submitted for testing. Officials are still awaiting those test results.
“We want to thank that patient for calling ahead and presenting himself, and we wish him a speedy recovery,” Rouhbakhsh said.
The doctors stressed that an exposed person who walks through an airport does not put other passengers at risk of contracting the virus, and air travel remains safe.
“This patient did not have symptoms at that time, so it’s not as if everybody that’s come into contact with this patient that became ill on Tuesday is now at risk,” Rouhbakhsh said. “That’s not the case. If you were exposed to this person, and now you are ill, now we start thinking maybe you have this virus.”
Forrest General Hospital staff has sent a total of three samples for coronavirus testing to the state lab, all of which have come back negative.
To put the number of coronavirus cases in perspective, in 2018 the hospital treated 1,642 confirmed cases of the flu virus.
“It is likely that patients with these symptoms have an illness other than COVID-19,” Rouhbakhsh said. “Nevertheless, we were aware that cases would eventually come to our state, and we have been preparing for weeks and are ready to care for our patients. We will get through this.”
Because of the shortage of personal protective equipment – such as masks, gloves and gowns – caused by outbreaks of the virus overseas and the national attention it has received, the hospital is currently limiting the number of visitors allowed to the hospital. As of Thursday, only one visitor per patient will be allowed until more supplies become available.
Rouhbakhsh said the incubation period of the virus can range between 2 and 14 days – with a median of 5.1 days – and the infectivity of the virus is highest in the first two days of symptoms.
“So thus far, we base it off when you have symptoms, and we look back,” he said. “It could be 14 or down to 2 days in which you were exposed. So it’s really hard to know where you got it from, but it almost doesn’t matter because you can’t give it to others until you’re sick yourself.”
Mayor Toby Barker and David Hogan, president of the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, urged residents to avoid large gatherings, particularly those with more than 250 people, such as festivals or concerts.
“We are blessed to have the most premiere health care providers in our region, so if you start showing symptoms – fever over 100 degrees, shortness of breath, coughing – contact your primary care giver,” Hogan said. “Let him or her know what’s going on, and they will direct you how to be treated properly.
“Let’s be smart – let’s avoid large gatherings, let’s wash our hands frequently, and avoid touching. Time will take care of this. It’s likely that it may get worse before it gets better, but as long as we’re smart, we’ll overcome this.”
Any city events that may be postponed or cancelled will be listed at www.hattiesburgms.com/coronavirus.